#5 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge
|The Green Ray by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #23
Published by Hetzel in 1882
Mode of travel: Boat
Read it on Gutenberg
Rarely, and only under the right conditions, a flash of green light can be seen over the setting sun. It is said to bring special powers of discernment to its lucky observers. Helena Campbell is determined to be one of them, especially since the quest might distract her uncles from marrying her off to the pedant, Aristobulus Ursiclos. The search for a suitable observation point takes her to the western coast of Scotland, then out into the Hebrides.
I’m forced to say that if The Green Ray is mostly harmless, it’s also terribly boring. It’s a shame, and I think it’s largely caused by Verne giving himself a female protagonist at a time when the possibilities for female protagonists were limited.
Helena Campbell: In many ways, Helena Campbell strangely resembles Professor Liedenbrock of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Like him, she has a domineering personality and when some text inspires her to leave home on a voyage of discovery, her nearest and dearest say ‘How far?’ Like Liedenbrock, she is tenacious, willing to risk her own life and those of other people in the pursuit of her interest. Like Liedenbrock, she fails at the end, thwarted by the rise of molten… well, in his case it was lava, in her case it’s passionate love for – I hardly consider this a spoiler – the man she intends to marry, who is not Aristobolus Ursiclos!
The thing is that while the professor’s journey is monumental, that of the young lady from Scotland can only be a miniature, a little tourist outing to the Hebrides where the main object of suspense is the British weather. Same personality, different social conditions. It’s the social conditions, especially as they relate to gender, that make Helena Campbell come across as spoilt, bossy, obsessive and irresponsible whereas Liedenbrock… well, he has his faults, but look at his achievements! It’s the social conditions that inspired Verne to have his heroine lean on her suitor for everything from expedition planning to getting her life saved in a daring rescue, and have her triumph at the end consist of getting married.
Fingal and Ossian: Needless to say, the Hebrides are beautiful and the descriptions are so accurate, you could find your way around Iona and Staffa on the basis of them. And I suppose Jules’ Voyage Extraordinaires achieved their purpose since I learned some things about Scotland that I never knew.
The characters talk a great deal about James MacPherson’s Poems of Ossian, once so popular the whole of the western world was reading them. It’s the overwhelming attraction of its mythological associations with Fingal’s Cave on Staffa that causes Helena Campbell to risk her life. In Ossian, MacPherson claimed to have collected and arranged elements of old Scottish folklore. His detractors maintained he made the whole thing up except for the bits he stole from Ireland. These days he’s almost forgotten, but in the 19th century, he looked set to be the Homer of the North.
I had a glance at Ossian and was puzzled to understand what the Victorians and their foreign contemporaries saw in it, but it certainly inspired them to make some of their most fantastical art. This one is by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson and shows Ossian, for reasons best known to the patron, Napoleon, greeting some French heroes in Valhalla!